It was seven-thirty in the evening. The biting Uplands chill was creeping up on her but she was feeling hot. She did not understand what those who accompanied her were talking about. She kept looking right then left then right again. Not that she was about to cross a road. Instead, she was searching the faces of the light evening human traffic. The train station was not busy – just a handful of people expecting their kith and kin. A few others waiting to board the Naivasha bound train. It was expected at 8 o’clock and normally would be on time. In fact, the neighbourhood relied on its ‘whistle’ or king’oora to tell the time. That train was her last hope. If her eight year old daughter did not alight from it, she had no idea where to start looking for her.
Yes. Her daughter was missing. And even as she waited for her to alight from a train, she had no idea how she would have got on it in the first place. She had left home earlier in the day without a penny to her name. Well, at least that is what she thought. According to older daughter, her younger sister had insisted on attending the divisional musical festival after they were released from school. She had begged her not to go, reminding her that “Mother had warned us to come home straight from school”. But she was obstinate and she knew not to argue. Being two years older did not seem to make a difference. In the end, she would do what she wanted. So she helped her as only a sister can. There was some five shillings note around which she told her to use in case she needed it. Then they raided the kitchen of whatever could be carried as lunch. Add some pears from the shamba and she was good for the adventure of a lifetime.
Off she went as happy as a kite. She followed other bigger cousins and schoolmates making their way to the Bata Shoe Factory in Limuru town where the festival was being held. That is a distance of at least 18 kilometres, my dear friends! How would an eight-year old walk to and fro? But that was the least of worries for the determined lass. All she could think of was the display of colour and dance and watching the performances. She loved music. Especially the traditional kind – the kind where you dressed up in traditional attire and carried flywhisks and jingle bells. The year before she had been a soloist and had gone up to divisional level. This year her class did not make it but that did not mean she would not go watch those who had. So here she was, like the prodigal son, taking step after step, away from home.
What her mother did not know was that she had not walked to Limuru. With other children, they had thronged the same train station where she now hopefully waited and had taken the 12 o’clock train to Limuru. It was jam-packed with kids going for the festival and the attendant had a difficult time collecting the fares. She had managed to save her five shillings and gotten to Limuru from where she lost track of time and most importantly, her neighbours. She had paid the one bob entrance fee into the hall and gotten carried away by the performances. That is, untill 5 o’clock when the activities seemed to slow down and the hall was getting quieter as the audience filtered away.
She managed to trace some children with the same school uniform as hers and decided those would lead her home. She heard them conversing how they could not wait for the 8 o’clock train and since they had no money for matatu fare, route 11 would have to do. She had no idea how long a journey it was but it seemed like fun. So, like the children who left Egypt without really comprehending why or what lay ahead, she followed the trekkers. Dusk and fatigue soon conspired and fell on the forlorn group but there was no giving up. By seven, they had covered quite a distance and the crowd of children was getting thinner as each arrived at the path leading home. That is when one of the older children noticed her and started asking police questions (maswali kama ya polisi).
“What is your name?”
“Of who?” (That only comes out right in vernacular – Wa uu?)
“Who are you with?”
“Where do you live?”
Apparently, they were nearing home and did not know of a neighbour like the young girl. Fortunately, they had the wisdom to bring her along and let their parents decide what to do with her. By then it was seven thirty.
The same police questions were repeated by the mama of the house. It turns out the “Of who?” question can be a real saviour. The mention of Mukabi was Njoroge wa Mahinda opened eyes. And doors. And the dinner pot. She was in the midst of her relatives. Her father’s cousins. And they would take her home, which was still about five kilometres away. But first, to matters of the stomach. Dinner was ready, and she was famished! How could she say no? In any case, how would that help her? There were no mobile phones back then and so the sequence of events was to eat then find the way home, whatever time that was. She still did not grasp the gravity of her actions, at least in her mother’s eyes. These people, who she did not even know existed until now, would take her home. Such is the innocence of a child.
An hour later and with a full stomach, jackets and torches in hand, it was back on the road again. Now she was really tired. And sleepy. For once, she wished she had stayed home.
As they approached the train station, they heard people approaching. They were enquiring from whomever they met whether they had seen a young girl in school uniform.
The eight o’clock train had come and gone. No way was she going home without her daughter. She would report to the police station. Maybe they could help. And as the four or five people that accompanied her headed in that direction, they met the group headed in the opposite direction. With the young girl in their midst. I am not sure I can describe the outpouring of emotions but relief would be an understatement.
That young girl happened to be yours truly. I would never describe myself as a rebellious child but adventure was not a strange word to me back in the day.
Now to the marathon connection.
The last week was training week for the Stanchart Nairobi Marathon that took place yesterday. I had registered for the half marathon but try as I could, I did not feel ready for it right up to the last minute. I had no intention of competing for the prize money but at least I thought I could tackle that distance in three hours tops. But the runner’s manual that came with the marathon kit was not helping. The words ‘stragglers bus’ could not leave me alone. I could see myself being forced off the track to clear way for mid-afternoon traffic. Worse still, being whisked off in an ambulance after fainting in the unforgiving Nairobi sun. I freaked out. Truth be told, I am scared of running. I am pretty sure that any nightmare I have had has been of me running away from something and my legs giving up on me. It is a fear I am determined to conquer and this marathon was going to be the beginning.
So, I remembered the courageous, young girl who could take on the bull by the horns. She may have been foolish, maybe ignorant. Still, she took the first step. Knowing what she wanted, she did not wait for the perfect situation. She did not wait for others to agree with her. She did not wait to grow older. Instead, she took the first step even when she couldn’t see the whole staircase (trust Martin Luther King, Jr to leave us such quotes). I long to go back to that time. To be that little girl once more. To be carefree. To care less what others think when I am on course to my achieving my dream.
As for the marathon, come back. I promise to tell you how it went.